Canoe Camping in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness
Canoeing the historic routes of the BWCA you’ll find towering pines, enormous slabs of granite, marshes, and small streams connecting lakes. With thousands of miles of canoe and portage trails, the BWCA offers an adventure for all. Canoe camping trips consist of paddling tranquil lake after lake, portaging canoes between the lakes on historic routes traversed by early fur traders and shared with wildlife, and setting up camp in one of the 2000 backcountry campsites perched on the glacial lakes.
Where to Camp in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area
The Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness offers over 2000 designated campsites across it’s 1200 miles of canoe routes and 1,100 lakes. These campsites are all backcountry first-come, first-served sites, and are not reservable. All of the designated campsites in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area have a wilderness latrine (an open-pit toilet). The sites closest to the entry points into the BWCA can be busy, and the farther into the wilderness you paddle, the more solitude you will find. If you are visiting the BWCA during the summer or holiday weekends, we suggest that you arrive at your campsite early in the day in order to secure a spot.
Boundary Waters Canoe Area campsites do have an unofficial rating system, and are rated between 1 – 5 stars. Check out BWCA.com for Boundary Waters Canoe Area campsite maps and campsite reviews and ratings.
BWCA Canoe Camping Routes
For overnight or multi-day canoe trips, there are hundreds of options across the BWCA. Beginner friendly lake routes include Long Island Base Camp, Saganaga Lake, Red Rock Loop, and Granite River. Some moderate to challenging routes include Crossbay to Poplar Lake, Frost River Loop, and Tuscarora West. The Boundary Waters outfitters featured on TripOutside can help you plan the perfect route based on your experience and preferences. Whether you desire a challenging trip over many miles paddling dozens of lakes and rivers and taking in scenic waterfalls, or a peaceful paddle to observe ancient pictographs, the BWCA has endless options. TripOutside can help you find your ideal route with outfitters based both in Ely and on the Superior shore in Tofte, who provide complete outfitting for your BWCA adventure.
For day trips or with kids, a great BWCA border lake to take the canoe out on is Sea Gull Lake – an enormous, versatile, and extremely scenic lake that is easy, kid-friendly, and located close to several campsites near Entry #54.
When to Go to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness
The summer months between May and September are the most popular, but the BWCA is visited year round. Our favorite time in the Boundary Waters is late August and early September. The mosquitos that are in full force in the peak summer months have typically eased off by late August. The days are usually still warm enough to enjoy a swim in the pure, warm water. Winter is an excellent time to visit if you are prepared with the right gear. With the right gear and knowledge, winter camping in the Boundary Waters can be an extraordinary experience. There are far fewer visitors, and you will have the solitude of this incredible wilderness to yourself – including no bugs! Seeing this pristine wilderness covered in snow is an incredible experience. Enjoy it by snowshoeing, cross-country skiing or dog sledding for a truly unique winter adventure.
Boundary Waters Canoe Area (BWCA) Permits
Boundary Waters permits are required all year, but there are a few factors that decide which permit you will need and how to get it. If you are doing a canoe camping trip during the summer months, you will need an OP permit, an Overnight Paddle permit that allows you to paddle and camp overnight in the BWCA. Get an OP permit for your BWCA trip at Recreation.gov. It helps to know where you will be renting a canoe or gear first, so you can choose the outfitter as the issuing station so they can issue the permit when you pick up your gear. Alternatively, the outfitter can also book the permit for you.
Types of Boundary Waters Permits
Between May 1st and September 30th
OP – Overnight Paddle: This is the most popular permit (and way to explore) for the Boundary Waters trip. This is a permit for your typical canoe camping trip in the BWCA.
Day use only, no camping: you just need a Self Issued Permit available at the kiosks at the BWCA entry points and Forest Service offices.
Hiking and camping overnight, no paddling: You need an Overnight Hiking Permit for the location you are entering and there is no stay limit for the number of nights.
After September 30th and before May 1st
Self Issued Permit: from kiosks at BWCAW entry points and Forest Service offices. Reservations are not required and there are no recreation fees.
Getting to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness
The BWCA is just over 200 miles away from Minneapolis / St. Paul – so you can fly into MSP airport and drive up to Ely, or fly directly to Duluth airport for a shorter commute to Ely and the Boundary Waters.
About the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness
This pristine wilderness of over 1,000,000 acres encompasses much of far Northern Minnesota and extends to the US/Canada border. The region looks much the same as it did in the early 1900s when preservation efforts began. It’s 1,100 lakes and hundreds of miles of rivers and streams makes it a one of a kind destination for canoeing, hiking, camping and fishing.
If you are lucky, you may spot one of the resident moose or hear wolves howling at night as you tuck into your tent. One incredible call you have a good chance of hearing is the beautiful song of the loon. These aquatic birds are an iconic symbol of the Boundary Waters, and are the Minnesota state bird. Their distinctive calls can be heard echoing across the lake in the early evening hours. The rich wildlife and intense solitude make BWCA an ideal destination for anyone who wants to reconnect with nature and the great outdoors.
Save the Boundary Waters
The Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness is threatened by sulfide-ore copper mining. The Campaign to Save the Boundary Waters is leading the effort to ensure permanent protection for the Boundary Waters Wilderness, America’s most visited Wilderness and Minnesota’s crown jewel, from proposed sulfide-ore copper mining.
What would a Twin Metals mine on the edge of the Boundary Waters mean? Pollution. Here’s a look at different ways this toxic mine could pollute the Wilderness. Not this mine. Not this place. #SavetheBWCA
Find out more about how you can help Save the BWCA!
Boundary Waters Canoe Area FAQs
Can you camp in the BWCA in the winter?
BWCA winter camping can be an incredible experience. Fewer crowds, peace and solitude, and a quiet blanket of snow make the Boundary Waters in winter a whole different experience. BWCA winter camping is also free, with no reservations required. Proper preparation is required for cold weather camping, and snowshoes, cross-country skis and sleds are generally required. TripOutside outfitters can provide all the resources you need for your Boundary Waters winter camping trip!
Do cell phones work in the Boundary Waters?
You may or may not get cellphone signal in the area. There may be some parts of the area where your phone can get signal, but for the most, there may be none. To be safe, we recommend you bring a satellite communication device with you for emergencies.